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Obama calls Benghazi talking points criticism a 'sideshow'

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, May 14, 2013, at 6:21 p.m.

President Obama today decried reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups and dismissed Republican criticism of his administration's handling of talking points about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya as a "sideshow," charging the GOP is using it a political weapon to raise money.

The remarks came as Obama held a joint appearance with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Obama said the talking points -- which resurfaced in emails last week that show the State Department and CIA urged changes -- were issued even as it was unclear what had happened in Libya. Republicans have called on the administration to publicly release the emails, suggesting they show the administration tried to cover up that the attack was tied to terrorists, not an anti-Islamic video.

But Obama said the White House gave the emails to congressional committees several months ago and that the Senate found "there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used.

"Suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story," Obama said. "There's no there there." Obama said the talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice used "pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time." And he said several days after Rice spoke, he sent the head of the National Counterterrorism Center to Capitol Hill and he "specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it.

"So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing," Obama said. "Who executes some sort of coverup or effort to tamp things down for three days?"

He said the controversy over the talking points "defies logic" and charged it's stayed a controversy because of "political motivations.

"We've had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton's integrity, Susan Rice's integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering's integrity," he said, adding, "It's a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks."

And he noted Republicans have "used it for fund-raising." He said he has taken responsibility for the "fact that we were not able to prevent" the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and that the administration is looking to prevent future attacks.

"There are still diplomats around the world who are in very dangerous, difficult situations," he said. "And we don't have time to be playing these kind of political games here in Washington. We should be focused on, what are we doing to protect them?"

"We dishonor (US diplomats) when we turn things like this into a political circus," he said. As for the IRS, Obama said there's "no place" for selective enforcement and that employees should be held accountable. "I can tell you that if you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, than that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions and people have to be held accountable and it's gotta be fixed," Obama said during a joint appearance with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Obama said he learned about the alleged malfeasance on Friday from news reports; he also said that the tax collection agency requires "absolute integrity, and people have to have confidence that they're applying the laws in a nonpartisan way."

Republicans have blasted the administration for the alleged lapse, but Obama said the outrage should be nonpartisan: "You should feel that way regardless of party. I don't care whether you're a Democrat, Independent or Republican. At some point there are going to be Republican administrations. At some point there are going to be Democratic ones. Either way, you don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate. So, this is something that I think people are -- are properly concerned about."

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